by Meir Wikler, D.S.W.
Most parents only come to school twice a year: once at the end of fall for P.T.A. and once at the end of spring for registration.nAside from these two evenings, there is often no direct contact between the parents and the school, unless there is a problem.
Although parents hardly set foot into their children’s school, they confront their children’s education every night through the medium of homework and review.
For some parents and children, homework is a relaxed, pleasant, nightly experience which blends smoothly into the rhythm of the evening schedule. Who these people are is no secret. Their names are listed in the Guiness Book of World Records.
For the rest of us, homework can become a nightly ordeal. It causes parents and children to lock horns, raise voices and gnash teeth. The passionate drama is so intense, at times, that it makes a Greek tragedy look like a comedy by comparison.
Before we, as parents, indict the school administration and before we whisk our children off to the nearest educational consultant, perhaps we should first examine some of our own attitudes about homework and ask ourselves, “Whose homework is it, anyway?”
I DON’T CONSIDER MYSELF MIDDLE AGED, YET. BUT IF YOU’D ASK MY children, they’d probably tell you that I went to school during the Middle Ages. Of course, some things were different when I attended elementary school yeshivah. We were discouraged, for example, from watching the now ineffable “box,” but we were not excommunicated for doing so. (While community standards have risen, the media’s have plummeted!) And the only “uniforms” were “yarmulkas and tzitzis for the boys, and skirts or dresses for the girls.”
But, while some things have changed, I have always assumed that others would not, and should not, change. One of those Rockof- Gibraltar components of yeshivah education is homework, or more properly, the “h” word.
Now don’t get me wrong. I HATED homework. I dillydallied and then dillydallied some more. I complained and mumbled and then complained some more. But I did it. In retrospect, I don’t believe that it did me any harm. In fact, I benefited greatly from all of those chapters I reviewed, verses I memorized and words I looked up. And if not for all of those compositions I had to write, I might not have been able to write this book!
However, this generation’s homework situation is very different from the way it was when I went to yeshivah. Oh, sure, my children still came home with loads of sefarim, books and stencils, just as I did; and yes, they did launch into the same impassioned oratory on the injustices of homework, just as I used to do.
But … they didn’t do the homework, as I did. Instead, my wife and I ended up doing a lot of the homework for them!
My parents were certainly there for me when I needed help with my homework, but that usually consisted of little more than giving me the spelling of a word that I might have otherwise had to look up in the dictionary or helping me cut a piece of cardboard in a straight line. Today, it is increasingly difficult for children to complete many of their homework assignments unassisted; and in some cases, it is even necessary for the parents to complete the assignments unassisted by their children!
I would not lift pen to paper on this sensitive subject had I not surveyed dozens of other yeshivah and bais yaakov students.
Both my wife and I have had experiences which, unfortunately, have been shared by others as well.
“How long did it take you to answer those Navi questions last week?” I once asked a father.
“Are you kidding?” the other father snapped in disgust. “I let my wife do those questions. She went to seminary; I never learned Navi in yeshivah.”
“How long did it take you to complete the Chumash homework last night?” I asked another father.
“I’m ashamed to admit it, but I couldn’t finish that one. I put in about an hour and a half and then I just gave up. So I wrote my daughter’s teacher a note that she didn’t feel well.”
My wife once asked another mother how she managed the difficult social studies homework which was due the day after a wedding.
“It wasn’t easy,” the other mother explained, triumphantly. “But we had a long drive to the hall. So I took the social studies book with me in the car. As my husband drove to the wedding, I dictated the answers to my son over the car phone.”
And so it goes. More often than we would like to admit, chavrusos are kept waiting, suppers are served late, and shiurim are missed as parents hassle with their children’s homework. In some extreme cases, invitations to bar mitzvahs or sheva berachos are declined as parents are held hostage at home because of homework. Invariably, tension mounts, patience runs out and at least one person ends up crying. And it is not always the child!
Hopefully, all would agree that this situation cannot continue. Firstly, our children are simply not learning from the homework we do for them, denying them the education they need and deserve. In addition, we cannot keep up under the strain. Our relationships with our children are suffering the most as we become the targets of each other’s tempers, which have by accumulated frustration. As a parent, I found myself singing the all-too-familiar chorus,
“Whose homework is it, anyway?!” How did this happen? When did it start? Who is to blame?
To answer the last question first, we have to blame ourselves, not our children. It is our fault for putting grades above learning and “success” above genuine achievement. If our daughter did not understand her teacher, if the rebbi went over our son’s head, or if our children cannot get all the answers right, that does not mean that we are supposed to do the work for them.
They will gain more from accepting the responsibility for their own limitations than they will by passing the buck to us.
But parents do not bear all of the guilt for this homework nightmare; the yeshivos and bais yaakov schools are at least partially at fault, as well. The drive towards “excellence” in education has gone too far. Competition is no longer just a problem among students but also among schools. Some yeshivos are trying to outdo each other while some bais yaakov schools are attempting to set everhigher standards. Every few years the level for starting Mishnayos drops one grade, as does the grade for beginning Ramban.
Let’s look in on the Bergers,* now, as the supper dishes are being cleared away. Supper started about a half hour later than usual tonight, so everyone is a bit behind schedule.
* Not the real name.
“If all the traffic lights are green, I can still be on time for my daf yomi shiur,” Sol Berger calls over his shoulder to his wife, Esther, as he bolts out the door.
“Shoshanah, don’t go into your room until you’ve helped clear the table,” Esther instructs her 15-year-old daughter.
“But, Ma, you know I have a major math test tomorrow. I need every minute to study. As it is, I’ll probably have to stay up past midnight.”
“Just give me five minutes and then I’ll let you go,” Esther insists.
After everything has been cleared away from supper, Esther looks for 7-year-old Yitzy. She finds him in the den, on the floor surrounded by his Lego.
“Yitzy, it’s time to review your Chumash homework. Remember what your rebbi said about the contest?” Esther coaxed.
“Oh, Ma, not now. I’ll do it with you later,” Yitzy protests.
Esther now looks for the book she was reading and settles into an easy chair in the living room. No sooner does she find her place than 11-year-old Ruchie runs in, breaking the peaceful silence.
“I just can’t do this book report! I don’t understand what the teacher wants. I don’t know how to do book reports. And I couldn’t even understand what the book was all about,” Ruchie pleads to her mother.
“Would you like me to help you?” Esther asks in a calm, soothing tone.
“I don’t even know how to begin!” Ruchie continues her whining.
“I’m offering to help you, Ruchie,” Esther repeats. “Bring me the sheet your teacher gave out in class, together with the book you read for the report. Let’s try to work on it together.”
Once Esther and Ruchie are sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, Esther peruses the book-report requirements.
“When is the book report due?” she asks her daughter.
“Tomorrow,” Ruchie replies, cautiously. “And if we give it in late, points are going to be taken off.”
A few moments later, Shoshanah appears in the kitchen doorway. She is practically breathing fire from her nostrils.
“This math is just impossible!” Shoshanah announces. “I did five of the review problems at the end of the chapter and I got them all wrong. There’s simply no way I’m going to pass that math test tomorrow. I know I’m going to fail. If I average in the 67 I got on the midterm, it will take a miracle for me to pass math this year. I might as well give up now.”
“Shoshanah,” Esther begins, calmly, “What would you like me to do about this?”
“Maybe you could show me how to do this stuff,” Shoshanah asks sheepishly. “I can usually figure it out when you explain it to me.”
Now the phone rings. Esther picks up the receiver. “Hello?…Yes … Oh, hi, Chavy… Congratulations. That’s wonderful. I never win anything in Chinese auctions. Your husband must be thrilled … I’d love to hear all about it but I’m busy with homework now. Let me call you back tomorrow.”
Now Yitzy runs through the kitchen holding a Lego airplane and making the appropriate engine sounds.
“Yitzy,” Esther shouts. “I thought you were going to review Chumash with me.”
“Later, Ma,” he shoots back. “V’room, V’room,” he intones, allowing the toy plane to carry him down the hall.
“Ma, you said you’d help me with my book report,” Ruchie objects.
“You know you really could do that report yourself,” Shoshanah chides her younger sister. “But I don’t stand a chance of passing this major math test tomorrow unless Ma studies with me.”
Esther Berger steals a glance at her watch, quickly calculating how much longer it will be until Sol gets home. Her next thought is, “How on earth did I get myself into this mess in the first place?
Whose homework is it, anyway?!”
Obviously, the problem began well before tonight’s supper.
Once Mrs. Berger accepted upon herself the responsibility to fill in all of the gaps in her children’s knowledge, she was planting the seeds for tonight’s crisis.
Months and years earlier, when Mrs. Berger agreed to compensate for any deficits of memory, knowledge, comprehension, or frustration on the part of her children, she laid the foundation for tonight’s dilemma.
Parents can and should assist their children with homework. It supports the educational process and sends a message that parents do care about their children’s chinuch. But parents must make it very clear right from the outset that assistance does not include last-minute, 11th-hour bail outs. Children can, at times, be quite manipulative. That is their
birthright. But parents must not allow themselves to be blackmailed you?” “If you don’t help me, I just won’t be able to do it myself” and, “But I’m no good at this and it’s so easy for you.”
It takes courage, at times, to resist children’s pressure. They can be very insistent and unyielding. In response, many parents just feel it is easier to do the homework themselves rather than go through the hassle of confrontation.
The issue here, however, is more than a book report or a math test. It goes way beyond that. The issue is whether or not your child will learn to be self-reliant and accept responsibility for his or her own shortcomings.
No, it doesn’t feel good to fail a test or lose points on a book report. But that bad feeling may motivate your child to prepare in advance next time. If you bail your children out today, they will never learn the more important lesson of how to plan ahead, tomorrow.
This may sound like a radical approach to some of the parents who have been picking up, cleaning up and fixing up after their children for many years. In fact, it might even sound downright revolutionary.
But that is just what we need. What we need is a revolution! We need a return to traditional family values! We need to makehomework a job for children, not parents! And we need to end this hostage crisis so that I can get to my shiur on time!